Picture the scene: you’re playing Super Smash Bros. on the Nintendo 64, back in the year 1999, you felt a pang of excitement when you saw another ‘Challenger Approaching’ screen flash in front of your eyes. Who was it this time? Bowser? Peach? Banjo-Kazooie? Nope, it was a strange kid with a red baseball cap on his vast head, packing electrified yo-yo’s and a killer baseball bat. As he continually screamed, ‘PK Fire’ over and over again, you couldn’t help but scratch your head wondering who the heck this kid was.
European gamers could be forgiven for not knowing his identity. His name was Ness, star of the cult classic Earthbound. In fact, it was the very definition of a cult classic because copies of it were hard to come by even in those days, and most importantly, it never saw a release in Europe. For years the only western exposure Ness and his successor, Lucas, have had is through the Smash Bros. series. But recently, perhaps in a bid to make up for their lack of intriguing Wii U titles, Nintendo announced that Earthbound was coming to the Virtual Console in all territories, which would mean a proper release in Europe for the very first time.
So finally, just shy of two decades late, European gamers can finally find out what the fuss is all about.
You can certainly see from the off why it is held in such high esteem, because there is truly nothing else like it out there. It is a game so bizarre, so weird and so bemusing at times that it throws surprises at you left, right, and centre, and rarely do you have any inclination what you might encounter on your approach to the next town. How many turn based RPGs have you played where you are attacked by a ‘New Age Retro Hippie,’ who flashes you a smile with teeth so white that they dazzle you, causing damage?
You get the feeling with Earthbound that they are lampooning many of the RPG games that were here, there and everywhere during the SNES era. All the elements are in place: the kid who embarks on a magical quest to save the world; the time travelling informant who brings news of this impeding doom; the forming of a band of unlikely heroes who team together to defeat a great evil. In Earthbound the premise to the adventure is so bizarre and outlandish that it can only be a parody of those other RPGs where the same things happen. The game is fully aware of the ridiculous pretext, and revels in it.
For all the complaints thrown at Nintendo for being too kiddie, the crux of this title is very much that you are playing as a child, and seeing the world of Eagleland through their eyes and their imaginations. Enemies are not vicious killer aliens or soldiers from a dystopian future. Rather you are fighting enemies children might legitimately be scared of. Skateboarding bullies; scary looking trees; creepy insects; cranky middle-aged women; you’ll fight them all and more. That’s not to say they are without menace. One early miniboss is a gang leader who comes out swinging knives wildly at you. Then later on you fight a puddle of sick. Rarely are videogames this unpredictable.
Yet the moment you prevail, the enemies you battle become tame or return to normal, indicating that you are merely returning the world to its natural state. Or whatever constitutes normal in the strange world Ness inhabits. This is a land filled with adults who are greedy, selfish and self-obsessed; where children are the sensible ones with useful advice to pass on. That’s not to say the adults don’t have interesting things to say. Every character you pass or converse with has something to tell you. Either it is something relevant to the plot, or it is something so joyously, deliberately irrelevant you can’t help but smile. Pop culture references are everywhere, and it’s a lot of fun when one seems to come out of nowhere. You can get lost in each town talking to the locals and piecing together their backstory. Though this can be a chore sometimes, as it’s not immediately obvious on occasions where you need to go next to further the story.
Combat wise, anyone who has ever played a Nintendo RPG before will feel right at home. In fact, Earthbound feels very much like a Genesis moment for more recognised Nintendo series such as Paper Mario and Golden Sun. Elements like seeing enemies in the game world before you attack them, and the balancing of HP and PP points, have been implemented into these new series to great acclaim. Pokémon fans will feel right at home when you start inflicting moves that paralyse opponents or put them to sleep. It is not afraid to play with these conventions a little. For example, enemies of a significantly lower level than you will actively steer clear of you, allowing you to avoid tedious battles against low level opponents should that be your wish (and making you feel like a god).
Perhaps this is why Earthbound’s battle system feels so utterly familiar. The series may have effectively been put out to pasture, but its best bits have been carved up and passed on to new projects over the years. That’s not to say its battle system is unenjoyably dull; in fact, it is very entertaining. What’s more, it presents a real challenge and you’ll regularly visit the hospital to revive downed teammates and having to retreat to find a safe healing spot. But it isn’t doing anything radically different to what other Nintendo franchises have done since. In many ways playing Earthbound feels like you’re slipping into a pair of very old, yet utterly comfortable old shoes.
It is the atmosphere of Earthbound and the world it creates which makes it stand out. It is easy to see, from how unique and genuinely funny this game is in places, why those fortunate to play it first time around hold it in such high regard: why it has massive online communities who devote their spare time translating Mother 3 from Japanese into English. Yet amid the insanity lies a game which has tremendous heart with genuinely tender moments, and a solid and addictive role playing element underpinning it all.
Ness may have taken his time, too long many would say, but it’s certainly easy to see why so many gamers were miffed by Nintendo’s decision long ago to never bring it to Europe. At least now that wrong has been corrected, and so Ness’s adventure can be experienced by everyone. You can imagine that American and Japanese gamers would bite your hand off to have the luxury of playing such a unique game for the first time again.
Earthbound is available now on the Wii U Virtual Console for £6.99.
Images courtesy of the official Nintendo Eartbound website